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Jean-Paul Belmondo, The Face Of French New Wave Film, Dies At 88

French actors Jean-Paul Belmondo, right, and Catherine Deneuve, in 1969. They starred together in François Truffaut's film <em>Mississippi Mermaid. </em>
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French actors Jean-Paul Belmondo, right, and Catherine Deneuve, in 1969. They starred together in François Truffaut's film Mississippi Mermaid.

French film star Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose breakout role in the New Wave classic Breathless won him international fame, has died at age 88.

French President Emmanuel Macron mourned the passing of a man he called "a national treasure" on Twitter. "He will forever remain Le Magnifique," Macron wrote, nodding to a 1973 slapstick spy satire that was just one on a long list of star turns in a career that spanned six decades.

Belmondo's death at his Paris home on Monday was confirmed by his lawyer, Michel Godest, to French news agency Agence France-Presse. "He had been very tired for some time. He died peacefully," Godest said.

Known for his craggy features, winning smile and ever-present cigarette, Belmondo was frequently compared by critics to fellow leading men Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando and James Dean. He played rebellious tough guys with a core of sweetness — and effortless cool.

Born outside Paris in 1933 to artist parents, Belmondo was an athlete growing up, and trained to be a boxer. He found his way into acting as a teenager and eventually landed a spot at France's national drama conservatory.

Belmondo began booking roles in short and feature films in the 1950s. In 1960, Jean-Luc Godard cast the young actor as a criminal in Breathless, opposite American actress Jean Seberg. In the film, Belmondo's Michel, a petty thief, steals a car and murders a policeman. He then flees to Paris, where he hides out with Seberg's Patricia while plotting an escape to Italy. The wild success of the movie inside and outside France made him the face of the French New Wave, an experimental movement that revolutionized world cinema.

"The key to Belmondo's success in the 1960s is that everyone desired him for one reason or another, and he had the air of a guy who was quickly sick of any demands but also willing to show his best self if you really needed it," the film critic Dan Callahan wrote in a remembrance of Belmondo on Monday.

Belmondo resisted Hollywood directors' efforts to woo him to America, saying, "Why complicate my life? I am too stupid to learn the language and it would only be a disaster," according to the New York Times.

That decision didn't seem to cost him any commercial success. In France, he remained a huge star, acting opposite the likes of screen legends Sophia Loren and Catherine Deneuve and taking roles in popular comedies and action films in the 1970s and 80s. He famously insisted on doing most of his own stunts.

He appeared regularly on screen into the 21st century, until a stroke in 2001 paralyzed one side of his body and left him unable to speak for half a year. After rehabilitation, he returned to star in one final film, A Man and His Dog, in 2008. In 2017, he received an over two-minute-long standing ovation when he was given a lifetime achievement honor at the César awards, France's equivalent of the Oscars.

"Jean-Paul Belmondo has passed away and cinema will never be quite as cool again," Edgar Wright, the director of films including Last Night In Soho and Baby Driver, tweeted on Monday.

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.